A random blog post

The seemingly innocuous word ‘random’ is often misused in the English language. This is true of many words but I want to dedicate some time to discuss the word ‘random’ because of its fascinating mathematical meaning and the importance of truly random processes to the world around us.

One of the fantastic comics from XKCD… https://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/im_so_random.png

What does random actually mean in mathematics?

Firstly lets talk about what it doesn’t mean. For most people, being random is akin to being strange, weird or erratic. This has become its common usage, the Oxford English Dictionary has a similar definition: ‘being made, done or happening without method or conscious decision’ (OED 10th Edition). So what’s the problem here? The issue is that the word random has a hidden mathematical meaning, something that most people are completely unaware of, even as the word emanates from their lips.

In mathematics, something that is random has no predictability or correlation. If you have a random sequence of numbers, then picking one number will give you no clue about what number came before it or what number will follow afterwards. It’s a very simple concept on paper but to actually calculate or observe truly random and unpredictable behaviour in the real world is very difficult. The problem is that in the natural world, almost every event that ever happens (for things larger than atoms) has an effect on something else which leads to a constantly growing web of interconnected events. Our reality is in fact a result of an almost infinite combination of interconnected events from the past affecting every aspect of the present. This interconnectivity means that most events that appear random such as the result of a dice throw or the positions of grains of sand on a beach are in fact predictable but only if you know all the smallest details of past events and how they affect each other.

Let’s take a simple coin throw as an example, on the surface the result (heads or tails) appears random and unpredictable).

However, a study by Persi Diaconis found that when a machine flips a coin with identical force and spin, the outcome is highly predicable. Not only that but different coins have different biases to fall on one particular side, and the result of a coin toss is highly dependent on the angle that the initial force is applied to the coin. All these factors are well known to magicians who can toss a coin is a seemingly natural way whilst being able to predict the outcome with amazing certainty.

Computers also suffer from the problem of non-randomness. When you command a computer to generate a sequence of random numbers it actually starts from a seed number (any number can be a seed) and then it runs a complex (but predicable) algorithm to generate seeming uncorrelated, random numbers. Here’s a gif of a program I made to illustrate random number generation…

A program that generates psudo-random numbers between 0 and 1.

Because these numbers are generated from a fixed seed in a predictable way, we call these numbers psudo-random. They are not safe to use for encrypting data or securing your computer. To produce better randomness, some computers measure difficult-to-predict things such as the time of your keystrokes, or the electronic noise in a circuit.

My point is that most random events that we experience in everyday life are far from random. By labelling such things as random we are actually obscuring the fact that they only appear random because of our own lack of understanding about all the factors that control them.

So, are there any examples of truly random events? The answer is yes, but for these examples, you need to delve into the quantum world of atoms and electrons. In quantum mechanics, interactions and movements are not governed by basic cause and effect but by probability. For example, electrons do not orbit in circles around atoms, they appear and disappear within a cloud surrounding the atom. If you look close to an atomic nucleus (the dark area in the diagram – right) you may spot electrons appearing and disappearing but, you will never know exactly when or where this is going to happen (this event is random). The further you move from the nucleus the rarer these appearances and disappearances become, still following a random sequence.

When a radioactive element decays, the nuclei of its atoms change or shed mass. When you are observing trillions of atoms you can predict how many will decay per hour, but if you isolate just one atom you will never know exactly when it will decay.

The exact time that a radioactive atom (black pixel on left plot) decays is unknown, but when the number of undecayed atoms (remaining nuclei in right graph) are plotted against time, a clear pattern emerges. Animation and plotting made by author.

For me this final point is the most fascinating. When you look at a single randomly behaving system (like the decay of atoms or the movement of electrons) by themselves they appear completely unpredictable. If you look at a single black pixel (representing an undecayed atom) in the above left plot, there is no way to tell when it will decay and become white. However when you observe large numbers of them the random behaviour ‘smooths’ out to produce a predicable pattern; just look how the decay curve on the right is showing a clear, predictable decrease.

This idea of large-scale patterns emerging out of small scale randomness extends to our entire world. Everything we interact with and experience which can be though of as ultimately predictable is, in fact, composed of tiny particles moving about, interacting and decaying in a completely random and unpredictable way.

Pretty random really…

Post by: Daniel Elijah

Wolves: the power of the pack

The sound of a howling wolf is ingrained in pop culture. It adds tension to almost any scene, even if you never actually catch a glimpse of the creature creating the sound. It’s not surprising that a well-placed howl can cause anxiety, considering that wolves have a dangerous reputation. A reputation which appears well founded as there have been at least 14 wolf attacks this year alone, injuring almost 30 people.

What could be scarier than running into a wolf on a dark night? Perhaps running into a pack of wolves? Especially when we consider that your average wolf is adept at working in a group to solve tasks and cooperating to hunt down their unsuspecting victims. Not forgetting that they are also intelligent hunters, putting domestic doge to shame and making them appear positively stupid.

Recent research from the Wolf Science Centre in Vienna has shown that, when it comes to cooperation, domesticated dogs may be missing a trick while wolves take the prize. This might seem counterintuitive, especially when several domestication theories suggest that the tamer and more docile domestic dogs should possess characteristics which improve tolerance and cooperation. However, it was actually found that wolves were more tolerant than dogs raised in a similar environment, and were also more capable of completing a cooperative task.

To study cooperation these animals were given a test called the “loose-string paradigm.” This test relied on a piece of apparatus consisting of a length of rope attached to a small board with a reward on. Both ends of the rope are exposed and, in order to obtain the reward, both ends must be pulled simultaneously. If only one side is pulled, the other end becomes inaccessible, and the reward does not move. The ends are at such a distance that one animal cannot pull them both, so two animals must cooperate to get the reward. This is a widely used experimental technique, which has been carried out with a wide range of animals, from shrews to elephants. Even the handsome little quokka got in on the act.

When first presented with this task, pairs of wolves performed better than dogs. In fact, after practicing, wolves were significantly better at the task than their domestic counterparts. Wolves actually beat dogs on many elements of this test. Firstly, unlike dogs, only one wolf needed to have been exposed to the task equipment for a pair of wolves to perform better. Secondly, dogs were also less likely to interact with the task, while wolves performed a wide array of “non-functional” interactions, when first introduced to the test equipment i.e. biting, pawing or scratching. It appeared that the wolves were more curious and subsequently learned how to carry out the task more successfully.

To further test the wolves’ cooperation, a modified version of the loose-string paradigm was introduced. Two sets of test equipment were set up in the same enclosure. In order to complete the task animals had to both pull strings on the same apparatus, ignoring the other equipment. As you can imagine, the rate of success on this variant of the test relied upon compatibility between the animals. Researchers found that animals who showed more affection with each other i.e. behaviour such as grooming, body contact and even tail wagging, were better at completing the task. So, the greater the affection between the wolves, the more likely they were to succeed at the task.

It was expected that dogs would be more tolerant of each other, seeing as they are regularly kept together as pets but, repeatedly, the dogs shows more aggressive behaviour towards each other and less affection. In fact one pair of animals had to be physically split up; two dogs, Sahibu and Gombo, you guys are jerks. When the dogs weren’t fighting, they routinely exhibited a simple conflict-avoidance strategy, by not taking part. They were less likely to interact with one another or the task. This obviously led to a decreased rate of success in the dog pairs – as I’m sure you know, ignoring your problems doesn’t help. Just like pretending you can’t hear the wolves scratching outside your door won’t stop them.

Moreover, wolf packs maintain a hierarchical social dynamic. Several behaviours have been documented as dominant or submissive. Whilst these behaviours were rare between all animals, they increased after animals were previously exposed to the apparatus. Once an animal knew how the equipment worked it was more likely to act dominant, particularly if the task wasn’t being completed. As we mentioned before, it only takes one wolf to have previously used the apparatus to increase the rate of success. Does this suggest that the dominant wolves were teaching others? Despite this horrifying theory, pairs of wolves who were closer in rank were more successful at completing the task. So, maybe you can sleep a bit better.

Finally, the task was altered to delay the entry of the second animal, leaving one wolf alone with the apparatus for 10 seconds. I don’t think I need to tell you what happened. One wolf waited patiently for the other, and the rate of success was similar to that in the other conditions. The rate of success was even higher in wolves which had previously carried out the task together. Not only are the wolves learning how the task works, they are remembering which other animals understand the task.

In the wild it is crucial that wolves work together. It’s been previously suggested that “wolves cooperate but dogs submit” and that is apparent in this study. As mentioned above similar ranked wolves work best together, whereas dogs either avoid the problem, or physically clash. Once the wolves understand the task, they are able to teach the tasks to others, and then remember which pack members understand the task.

It’s also interesting to note that only one animal was removed for not caring enough. I think by now you know that it was a dog; wolves don’t give up. Wolves learn, they test things out, work as a team and solve puzzles. Like the lock on your door, slinking into your room whilst you read some nonsense on the internet…

Post by: Dr Alex Ryan



Comment: Why being ‘overweight’ means you live longer: the way scientists twist the facts.

OK, so a friend of mine recently posted a link on Facebook to an article entitled ‘Why being ‘overweight’ means you live longer: the way scientists twist the facts’. I can’t lie, just the title alone made my blood boil. My main concern was, aside from what appeared to be an oversimplification of a phenomenon that scientists know as the ‘obesity paradox’, the title also plays beautifully into the ‘us vs them’ notion that academics are somehow untrustworthy. But, after my blood pressure settled, I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt and read the whole article – I’ve heard at numerous ‘media training’ workshops that it’s not uncommon for editors to alter article titles just before print to make them more appealing and more likely to garner views, so perhaps the body of the article was a bit more nuanced?

The article overall gave the impression that the author was well versed in scientific literature, using well placed quotes from research papers to highlight important points. For example, the author quotes a study from 2005 which used medical data (collected between 1971 and 1994) to show increased mortality (risk of death) in those with BMI’s (Body Mass Index) over 30 (i.e. those classified as obese). He correctly points out that the title of this paper (‘Excess deaths associated with underweight, overweight and obesity’) is misleading and implies that being overweight (i.e. having a BMI of between 25 and 30) increases your risk of mortality, when the study actually finds lower mortality in those with BMI’s between 25 and 30 than for individuals in the ‘ideal’ BMI range (18.5-25), I.e. being moderately overweight is good for you.

These findings do actually agree with a number of similar studies. In fact, in addition to these findings, there are also a whole host of studies which suggest that being overweight can lead to better survival rates following a large range of medical conditions (for example coronary heart disease, chronic heart failure, stroke and more).

So, do I agree with this article? Well, partially.

I agree that the obesity paradox exists and these findings are not often spoken about. However, the reason that they are not often publicised is not because academics want to ‘twist the facts’ or, as the author states, that ‘no one can bring themselves to say: Sorry, we were wrong. A BMI between 25 and 29 is the healthiest weight of all. For those of you between 20 and 25, I say, eat more, become healthier’. It’s because there is much more to these findings than first meets the eye.

I don’t think many doctors or researchers would argue that obesity, especially weight carried around the stomach, is a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes, lipid disorders, hypertension, coronary heart disease and some cancers. A quick search of Google Scholar will turn up a stack of articles suggesting that increased weight is linked to a whole range of long-term conditions.

But, how can both these findings be correct? How can it be possible that being overweight can mean you live longer but you are also more likely to suffer from a chronic illness (i.e. diabetes or heart disease)?

I believe that this is the question we are yet to find a satisfactory answer to, and therefore the reason it’s best to be cautious about making statements such as “being “overweight” is the healthiest and most “normal” weight of all”.

A paper entitled ‘The Obesity Paradox Does Exist’ expressed this problem very well, stating: “the discussion over the existence of the obesity paradox cannot lead to an underestimation of obesity as a crucial risk factor for the development of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases that requires comprehensive prevention and management strategies”.

But what’s my overall impression of this article?

I believe that it does raise awareness of a medical phenomenon which needs to be discussed but, that it does so in a dangerous and inflammatory way. Blaming scientists and accusing them of manipulating/twisting results is not helpful. Neither is writing a biased article which does not acknowledge the breadth and depth of understanding around a topic – i.e. it’s just as dangerous to tell individuals that it’s entirely healthy to be overweight (in the case of this article to even go as far as to suggest that the dangers of obesity are greatly overrated) as it is to ignore this obesity paradox entirely and blame everything on excessive weight. We need to be smart and realise that any reference to things being ‘black or white’ is probably dangerously misleading.

So, what can we take from this article and the related research?

Well, certainly not that it’s always going to be OK to be overweight. But, perhaps that we put too much stock in BMI calculations? Especially when this calculation (weight in kilograms divided by the square of your height in meters) does not take into account the extra weight carried in muscles, an individual’s body shape, fat distribution across the whole body or overall fitness level – all of which are important indicators of whether or not the weight we carry could be harmful. In fact, many of the academics studying this paradox suggest that it may actually be caused by problems related to the BMI measurement rather than any actual protection afforded by excess weight. That means that if you eat well and exercise regularly, even If your BMI is high, you are probably going to be healthier than someone who eats badly, smokes, and rarely gets off the sofa (whatever their BMI). At the end of the day it’s just a number, we all know how healthy our lifestyles are so we shouldn’t believe that such measurements can 100% predict our health outcomes. Hopefully, in the future, researchers can plan studies which allow them to look beyond BMI and work out how different types of fat, where it’s stored on the body and our overall fitness level affect our health – this might give us a better picture of what is really good for us.

Post by: Sarah Fox


Excess deaths associated with underweight, overweight and obesity

The Obesity Paradox: Perception vs Knowledge

Obesity Paradox Does Exist



Citizens across the North invited to get moving and help heart research in UK digital health first

The University of Manchester’s Connected Health Cities and Nokia partner to organise an 8 week step challenge across the North

Nokia and the Connected Health Cities (CHC) programme have launched CityMoves, an eight-week step challenge taking place from 23rd October to 21st December 2017.

I’ve already downloaded the app and am having a bit of fun logging my weekly activity. It seems I’m all systems go during the week but make up for it by lazing around over the weekend!

The challenge promotes healthy living and the positive use of data and technology in health and research. It’s also an opportunity for citizens across Greater Manchester to help advance science’s understanding of how low-intensity exercise improves heart health. Scientists know that intense exercise, like marathon running, will reduce your resting heart rate. But, they know less about how well moderate exercise such as walking can cause this reduction. Hopefully data from this app could provide an answer.

Participants will be able to track their steps through the Nokia Health Mate app, which also allows users to measure their pulse rate using their smartphones camera. Although this does take a bit of practice… Actually I was a bit worried by how my pulse spiked from simply climbing the stairs to my office, I’m blaming my technique but perhaps I just need a bit more gym time?

The project will be delivered across Connected Health Cities four city regions including Greater Manchester, Yorkshire, Liverpool and the North West Coast and Newcastle and the North East. Each region will be able to see how the amount of steps they have taken over the period compares to the others’.

As well as daily updates on the dedicated website, each week users get personalised feedback with information about their progress and how they compare to others from across the North – A bit of healthy northern competition! Throughout the eight weeks of the challenge CHC and Nokia will keep people motivated with motivational content, seasonal tips to get moving more, hundreds of fitness tracker give-aways and awareness messages on how to keep your heart healthy.

After the 8-week period de-personalised data will be sent to The University of Manchester’s Connected Health Cities programme where data scientists will look for changes in heart rate across the study period.

Prof John Ainsworth, Director of Connected Health Cities said:

“More effective use of data and technology has great potential to deliver health benefits for all of us. The CityMoves study is a great example for people to see the positive impact that their data can have.

“In CityMoves study we aim to develop a better understanding of the relationship between increased physical exercise and resting heart rate, a key indicator of health.”

To join the programme participants can register at nokia.ly/citymoves, choose their team and begin measuring their steps and watch as they rise up their team’s leader board.

www.connectedhealthcities.org @CHCNorth #DataSavesLives



What colour is your pain?

If pain had a colour what would it be? Perhaps a throbbing headache would be a deep purple while a night-time leg cramp might be an intense flash of red jolting you from your slumber? If you were asked to describe the colour of your pain what would it be? And are there common colours associated with different types of pain?

Sometime ago I worked on an Arthritis Research UK (ARUK) stand at the Manchester Science Festival. Members of the public were asked to tie ribbons onto a skeleton to show where they experienced pain. The result was fascinating – so many people had knee problems! What was also fascinating to me was the public’s willingness to share their pain stories and get involved with demonstrating where their pain appeared. After this event it occurred to me that people might associate pain with, or experienced it as, a colour but I had no way of testing this theory. Then, I spotted a notice for the Citizen Scientist Showcase, part of the Manchester Science Festival. They were looking for members of the public to set up a stall and promote their own project as part of the Salford Science Jam. Just the avenue I was looking for! This means that I now get to explore my idea, and festival visitors get to contribute to an amazing visual mosaic that has an artistic value all its own.

My idea is really simple. Members of the public use a post-it note, piece of paper or maybe even a tablet if we can get the whole thing digitised to draw the colour, and possibly the shape, of their pain. I’m expecting everything from red blobs to electric green squiggles. These individual pieces of art will then be collected and displayed as a wall mural / mosaic showing the full spectrum of colours and shapes making up our perceptions of pain.

At the end of the day we will have a mosaic which beautifully combines the science and art behind our pain. The beauty of the exercise is that it can be carried out time and again either as a stand-alone piece or as part of a larger project with each event feeding into a larger work of art. I hope that this little project will create a legacy, perhaps informing further pieces of research looking at how colour can be used to help people describe their pain symptoms. Perhaps this could even lead to new avenues in the alleviation or relief of pain!

The Citizen Science Showcase takes place at Salford University’s Media City Campus on Saturday 21st and Sunday 22nd October from 11.00 am to 4.00pm each day.

I’m really excited about working on my first piece of “research”. So, if you would like to contribute to this work or have any comments or advice, I love to hear from you.

Post by: Kay Gallacher


Healthy eating: not always as healthy as you might think.

I have a confession to make.

When it comes to healthy eating I’m absolutely useless. Spending extended periods of time in the kitchen is my idea of hell, especially when I could be doing better things (like blogging about how I don’t like spending time in my kitchen). So, when meal time comes around, I usually either rely on my long suffering husband’s culinary skills or trust in the marketing I see on supermarket shelves, erring towards products labeled as as ‘Fat Free’, ‘Healthy Living’ or ‘Nutritious’. This has always seemed like a pretty solid game plan and I’m sure I’m not the only one who uses this method to try and move towards a healthier, more balanced diet.

However, as part of my interest in health apps, I downloaded the NHS’s Change4Life app which allows you to play food detective, scanning different products and giving a simple overview of how much sugar, saturated fat and salt they contain and the results were pretty eye opening.

The app looks friendly enough with it’s vibrant yellow background and quirky cartoon interface but after a few well meaning scans I started to feel that this app was probably not my friend.

My first scan was something I knew would flag up as being unhealthy but I wanted to see just how bad it actually was. So I scanned a box of my favourite chocolate cereal and waited for the result. What I found was pretty shocking. It seems that, for each bowl of tasty chocolate goodness, I’m actually eating the equivalent of 3 cubes of sugar and half a sachet of salt. Since the recommended daily sugar intake for an adult woman is 25 grams (just over 6 sugar cubes), this means that one bowl of my favourite cereal is about 44% of my recommended sugar fix for the whole day – talk about starting the day off on the wrong foot! I must admit I felt that I may have been happier not knowing this information but I certainly wouldn’t be healthier.

After this chocolatey revelation, I thought I’d use the app to perform a broad sweep of a range of products in my local supermarket, focusing on those marketed as being healthy.

One of the most striking things I found as I scanned around the shelves was that a fair number of products which I always assumed were relatively healthy, usually because that was how they were marketed, just weren’t.

I’m not going to name names (download the app and try for yourself) but here are a few of the shockers that I uncovered:

Sticking with my theme of breakfast revelations, I scanned a pack of popular breakfast biscuits which are marketed as ‘A perfect source of nutritious sustained energy’. I found that each portion contained almost a whole cube of sugar (1 sixth of your daily allowance in one, supposedly healthy, biscuit), 0.2 grams of saturated fat, and 0.2 sachets of salt. The app’s handy traffic light system rated sugar in this product as being high (red) while saturated fat and salt were both medium (orange). So perhaps this is not the best breakfast option?

Next I decided to move away from breakfast and try out a lunch option. The lunch pot I scanned was marketed as a ‘light lunch’, which I, and I’m sure many others, would assume should be a healthy option. This product was a winner when it came to sugar and saturated fat, being low (green) for both but then I looked at the salt. Registering as medium for salt content, one portion contained the equivalent of 3.6 sachets, that’s almost 2 grams or around a third of your daily recommended intake. Although salt often takes a back seat to sugar and saturated fat when we talk about healthy eating, it’s important to know that too much salt in our diets can increase our risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. It’s recommended that we don’t eat more than 6 grams of salt per day, that’s less than one teaspoon!

From here I thought I’d move on to look at a few larger ready meals, focusing on supermarket own-brand ‘healthy living’ meals. I was hopeful. The first meal I scanned was low in sugar but contained 5.1 grams of saturated fat and 0.6 grams of salt per portion, this registered as being medium or orange for both. My next two scans sadly seemed to followed the same trend.

So, although there were exceptions, it seemed that many of the meals and snacks I scanned which were marketed as healthy or balanced were actually much less healthy than I would have first thought. I also noticed a trend that products which were marketed as being ‘low fat’ were often particularly high in sugar. I guess this is the trade off the manufacturers make but perhaps it should state on the packaging ‘low in fat but packed with sugar to compensate’.

Finally, and one of the biggest revelations for me, was when I tried comparing a named-brand wheat biscuit breakfast cereal with the supermarket’s own-brand alternative. The named brand cereal was one of my first ‘all green’ scans with low levels of sugar, saturated fat and salt – pretty much what I would have expected from a simple wheat cereal. However, when I scanned the supermarket’s own product I was suddenly confronted by a unnerving orange traffic light for salt.The app showed that the own-brand cereal contained 0.3 grams of salt per serving, compared to 0.1 for the named brand. I think this is still at the lower-end of medium but I was shocked that this difference existed at all between two brands of what is essentially the same product. I guess that this proves, even if we think we know a product, it’s important to be sure exactly how different brands alter their ingredients.

For me, playing with this app has been amazingly interesting. Although the information the app gives you is no different from what you could read yourself on an ingredients list, the app interface gives you a quick and easy way to gauge, in a comparative way, how healthy each product really is. It also offers tips for healthier alternatives and recipes which has given me something extra to think about during my weekly shop.

I’m not going to kid myself though, I’m no saint when it comes to food and I don’t think I ever will be but I know how important it is to try and maintain a reasonable balance. This is why the most worrying discovery I made using this app is not the amount of sugar and fat in the foods which I know are bad for me (the things I try to eat in moderation) but it’s the figures the app shows for foods I would otherwise have assumed to be a ‘healthy alternative’. So, I really do recommend downloading the app and trying it out for yourselves, it may just be the fist step on the path to a healthier life.

Post by: Sarah Fox



Normalising cancer.

Working in the area of medical research I hear a lot about cancer. From the development of algorithms that can predict who is most at risk of developing the disease to the best ways to support patients through surgery, the big C is still top of the research agenda for many academics. Therefore, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that when I sidestepped away from neuroscience into the broader field of health research I wasn’t entirely prepared for the deluge of cancer research about to fall on my lap.

But this shouldn’t have come as a surprise, especially since it is currently suggested that one in 2 people will, at some point in their lives, develop cancer and that deaths from cancer are higher in Greater Manchester than the rest of the UK. I’m sure I’m not alone in finding these facts excessively scary and, if I’m honest, I don’t know if I’ll ever be comfortable with the idea that one in 2 of us will suffer from cancer at some point in our lives (flip a coin, heads you win tails you lose).

However, it’s exactly these feelings of fear and disassociation I want to explore.

With the sword of Damocles resting maliciously above our heads and knowing that our best weapon against the big C is early diagnosis, is it time for cancer to be dragged out of the shadows and for us all to have a good look?

Earlier this year I took my mum to a talk called ‘Identity and Illness’ which was billed as an exploration of the way we build our identities up around our illnesses and what role diagnosis plays in this process. For some reason I built this up in my mind as being about mental illness, a topic I’m very interested in, and was shocked when we turned up and found that it was actually an exploration of how a cancer diagnosis influences identity. It had been a long day at work, I was tired and cancer was not something I wanted to think about. However, I’m glad I avoided the temptation to stick my fingers in my ears and hum loudly because the discussion soon took a very interesting turn. The speakers began to question why as a society we bury our heads in the sand when it comes to cancer, softly repeating the mantra it won’t be me, when the upsetting truth is that it’s pretty likely to be you and that your best chance of survival is vigilance and acceptance. Why are we so reluctant to confront illness as part of our everyday lives and would that feared diagnosis be easier to stomach if information, frank discussion and disease role models were a more common part of our daily lives?

People just don’t want to talk about serious illness and it’s rarely addressed in the media. Who else was shocked last year by what seemed to be the sudden death of David Bowie shortly after releasing his poignant music video Lazarus (“look up here I’m in heaven, I’ve got scars that can’t be seen”). In fact, studies suggest that it’s not rare for people to try to hide serious illness, with a quarter of people actively hiding their diagnosis from colleagues and, if possible, even from their family and friends.

But, however far under the rug we try to sweep illness it won’t go away. No family is immune and it can affect people of any age, wealth, profession and education. So, would we be better off opening the box on cancer and other serious illnesses and trying to integrate them back into society. Should illness be the norm rather than just our dirty little secret and would this mindset improve diagnosis, survival rates and the quality of life for sufferers?

Perhaps encouraging more transparency and better dialogues would even go some way to tackling some of the damaging and pervasive myths surrounding cancer. It’s much easier to build up false narratives around something which is hard to see than around things which are common parts of our everyday lives.

I do recognise that this is a difficult topic but it’s one that needs to be addressed. Rather than fearing illness, we should be prepared to increase our awareness, using all the knowledge at our disposal to recognise the earliest symptoms and be prepared to fight as soon as it raises its ugly head. And yes, like many of you, I know that no matter how loud my logical brain shouts that illness and cancer are just a part of life and that knowledge is our best weapon, there will always be a part of me that wants to hide away and ignore it. But, cancer research is moving forward in leaps and bounds and survival rates associated with early diagnosis have never been higher. So, it’s never been more important to face this monster head on – shout it’s name from the rooftops and assert that we will beat it.

Post by: Sarah Fox



I don’t know about you but the first thing I do after arriving at work in the morning is grab a cup of coffee. Like many say ‘I can’t function without it’.  In the UK alone over 50 million cups are consumed in just one day!  So what exactly is it about coffee that makes us crave it so much?

Although originally native to the tropics, the coffea plant is now grown in over 70 countries around the world, producing two main types of coffee, Coffea Canephora (also known as Robusta) and Coffea Arabica.  Harvested coffea fruit (also known as cherries) are dried to reveal the beans which are then hulled and polished.  Beans are then roasted, releasing the caffeol oil (which is stored within the bean and gives them their distinct brown colour and aroma). Among other chemicals found in these beans is caffeine, the chemical responsible for the stimulatory effect of coffee. Caffeine is absorbed into the body through the small intestine, where it is then able to cross the blood-brain barrier and produce the psychoactive effects associated with coffee consumption.

Chemically speaking caffeine is what is known as a purine. It stimulates the central nervous system (CNS) by blocking the action of adenosine (a molecule involved in cellular communication through the second messenger cAMP).  cAMP acts on the CNS promoting drowsiness and preventing arousal, basically making us tired. In the morning when we wake up,  levels of cAMP in the body are relatively low.  As the day progresses cAMP builds up and binds to adenosine receptors found in the CNS. cAMP then acts as a messenger triggering downstream effects which make us drowsy. Caffeine prevents drowsiness by acting as an antagonist of cAMP, temporarily blocking it from communicating its downstream message.  This blockage also promotes the release of other chemicals such as acetylcholine which can stimulate the body.  This stimulation leads to increased alertness and focus, aiding in concentration and performance.

However, like with most foods, we’re constantly hearing about the associated diseases and medical problems coffee could cause; cancer, heart disease and long term addiction to name a few.  But, how much of this is true?  Well actually very little.  Like many of our guilty pleasures, caffeine in  moderate amounts has no negative effects on healthy adults. In fact you would need to consume a whopping 15-20 cups of coffee per day to overdose (I think most people would struggle with that)! In terms of caffeine addiction, it is possible to experience mild psychoactive withdrawal if consumption is stopped, but this affect is mild compared to the withdrawal experienced when coming off other psychoactive drugs.So, whilst you should definitely not substitute coffee for water, our favorite fuel is still a safe morning essential – go procaffinate!


Post by: Stephanie Macdonald

Useful links:






Achieving Zero Carbon – A visit to the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT)

A Cretan windmill in CAT’s early days with R. James and G. Collier (Photo: The CAT Archive)

Throughout my degree in marine biology, we were always encouraged to attend as many career and interest-related events as possible. One of my passions is climate change mitigation. Therefore, when I saw that Zero Carbon Liverpool (ZCL) had managed to secure a few fully funded places to the ‘Zero Carbon Britain: Making it happen’ short course at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), I had to do some research. CAT was founded in 1973 by businessman turned environmental activist Gerard Morgan-Grenville in an abandoned slate quarry site near Machynlleth, Wales. Originally established as a small community experimenting with alternative methods of construction and food production, CAT is now an award-winning facility that promotes low-energy technologies and sustainable living.

I remember thinking to myself ‘what better place to learn about the clean energy revolution than in a hippy-ville turned research institute!’ I was so excited by the prospect of visiting CAT, I immediately applied for one of the funded spots on the course. A few days later, I found out that I would be off to visit the beautiful region of Mid-Wales, to engage with CAT’s vision of a modern, zero-emission society.

Centre for Alternative Technology

CAT reception and ticket office (Photo: Lindsay Melia)

I managed to get a lift to CAT from Jo (one of the co-founders of ZCL) and her fiancé Adam. We were also joined by Lindsay, a fellow zero carbon enthusiast. We set off from Liverpool on an overcast afternoon and reached our destination a little over two hours later. Upon arriving at CAT we were soon surrounded by lush greenery, which had recolonized the disused quarry. The novice terrestrial naturalist within me instinctively started looking out for various flowering plants in bloom and instantly regretted not bringing my vegetation ID guide.

We arrived slightly before tea time, so Lindsay and I decided to wander around and check out the facilities on site. I found out that we would be staying in the Wales Institute for Sustainable Education (WISE) building for the entire duration of the course and that our course activities would also be based in and around WISE. The building has numerous environmentally friendly additions, for example the adoption of the rammed earth technology, a construction technique that uses natural aggregates such as clay, gravel, sand and silt; as well as incorporating reed beds for waste water treatment. We also found, scattered on the CAT trail, various environmentally friendly innovations all of which were labeled explaining why and how they were more sustainable then other, more common, alternatives. One can easily spend hours on the trail but the dinner bell rang and we headed back to the CAT café to enjoy a delicious vegetarian curry. Afterwards, we went to the bar for a couple of drinks. Coincidentally, a local folk group were having their weekly practice, which provided us with some much-appreciated musical entertainment.

WISE eco-friendly features. (Photo: CAT Information Service)

Zero Carbon Britain: Rethinking the future

Footpath and the exterior of the Sheppard Lecture theatre. (Photo: Lindsay Melia)
Interior of the greenhouse (Photo: Fiona Chong)

The next day was the start of the ZCB course which focused on the possibility of an alternative future. We were introduced to the many contributing factors to climate change. These include but are not limited to industrialization, population growth, capitalism and diet. As of June 2017, the atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) level has reached 408.84 parts per million (ppm) (Mauna Loa Observatory), well over the pre-industrial 280 ppm in the mid-1700s. This unprecedented amount of CO2 is much more than can be absorbed by natural processes. The excess CO2 traps more heat in the atmosphere, which leads to global warming and a cascade of negative effects, such as regional flooding and droughts. If the world’s population continues its dependence on fossil fuels to support our ‘modern’ lifestyle, these negative effects will continue to accelerate. These are the reasons that climate change is often deemed as the biggest humanitarian crisis of our generation. Even though world leaders are aware of how pressing the matter is, this is a battle against time. Knowing this, I couldn’t help but feel deflated about the future of our climate.

Energy mix in the ZCB scenario. (Photo: ZCB Graphics)

However, my pessimism was quickly dissipated by Alice Hooker-Stroud, the former ZCB research coordinator, when she explained that CAT’s research has shown that current technology is sufficient for the UK to achieve a net zero greenhouse gas emission now, without having to wait for the ‘silver bullet’ of future technologies or potentially dangerous nuclear power. She reiterated that we need to: 1) ‘power up’ renewable energy, with a concentration on wind power; and 2) ‘power down’ our current energy demand, by improving home heating efficiency, supporting the electrification of vehicles less air travel. This all sounds very familiar but I was both doubtful and curious as to whether we could ‘keep the lights on’ – even when there’s no wind and the sun isn’t shining.

Energy demand in 2010 and in the ZCB scenario. (Photo: ZCB Graphics)
Estimation of land use today and land use in the ZCB scenario in million hectares. (Photo: ZCB Graphics)

The answer, apparently, is a resounding ‘yes’ – CAT’s modelling has shown that a ZCB future would produce a surplus of energy 82% of the time – by using ‘smart’ appliances, storing excess electricity and using carbon neutral synthetic fuels, any shortfall could be overcome. Last but not least, through diet changes (mainly by reducing meat consumption), 75% of the land currently used for grazing livestock can be repurposed to grow more biomass required to support the ZCB energy system; or be restored back to forest or peatlands to capture carbon.

Zero Carbon Britain: Making it happen

The Paris Climate Agreement states that globally we must reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, therefore there really is no option but to embrace the zero-carbon future. We spent the second day exploring the big question – What’s stopping us?

Researchers have shown that we are not limited by technology but rather a combination of economic, cultural and psychological barriers. They believe that climate change in the modern world is not a root problem but a symptom of consumerism and a disconnection from nature and from other human beings. Changing how millions of people live is a unique challenge in itself and can only be overcome if actions are carried out at global, national, local and individual levels. There is no act too small and no act too bold. However, some things

A visual representation of our zero-carbon Britain brainstorm. (Photo: Lindsay Melia)

that are beneficial include lobbying climate legislation, divestment from the fossil fuel industry, investing in zero carbon projects and community energy, challenging climate skepticism in the media, improving carbon literacy, promoting communications…the list goes on. There are countless solutions to this wicked problem but collective action is the key.

I left CAT with a new-found sense of optimism for our zero-emission future. It is often easy to assume that others care less about climate change (amongst other things) than you do. This blog is my contribution to spreading climate positivity. What will yours be?

I would like to thank Zero Carbon Liverpool for giving me this invaluable experience. If you would like to get involved with Zero Carbon Liverpool’s work locally, get in touch with them on Twitter and Facebook.

The Zero Carbon Britain reports can be accessed here.

Post by: Fiona Chong



‘Hangry’ humans – why an empty stomach can make us mean

There’s no point denying it, at one point or another, we’ve all been guilty of being ‘hangry’. Whether you’re a frequent culprit or just an occasional offender, getting angry when hungry is a common crime in many households, and one that can result in arguments, ‘fallings out’ and even a night spent sleeping on the couch. But is it really our fault or is there a more biological reason to blame? An increasing body of research suggests our blood glucose may be the real culprit.

The glucose we obtain from our diet is a key source of energy, required for our bodies to function and delivered to all of our cells via our blood. Out of all the organs of the body, our brain is the most energy-consuming, using around 20% of the energy our bodies produce. It also relies almost completely on glucose as its energy source, making an efficient supply of this sugar essential to maintaining proper brain function. This is particularly true for higher-order brain processes such as self-control, which require relatively high levels of energy to carry out, even for the brain. Since self-control allows us to resist such impulsive urges as out-of-control eating or aggressive outbursts, if our brain does not have sufficient energy to perform this process, our ability to stem these unwanted impulses can suffer.

Low levels of glucose in our blood can also result in an increase in certain chemicals in our body, believed to be linked to aggression and stress. Cortisol, for instance, colloquially named the ‘stress hormone’, has been shown to increase in individuals when they restrict their caloric (and therefore glucose) intake. Neuropeptide Y concentrations have also been shown to be higher in individuals with conditions associated with impulsive aggression when compared to healthy volunteers.

Given such evidence, it therefore makes sense that low levels of blood glucose, like those experienced when we are hungry, could plausibly lead us to become more aggressive. The association between blood glucose and level of aggression has been observed in multiple studies, including Ralph Bolton’s 1970s research of the Quolla Indians. These Peruvian highlanders are well-known for their high rates of unpremeditated murder and seemingly irrational acts of violence. Having observed both this behaviour and a strong sugar craving among the Quolla Indians, Bolton decided to investigate the possible link between hunger and aggression. In agreement with his hypothesis, Bolton found that the Quolla Indians commonly experienced low blood glucose levels, and that those with the lowest levels tended to be the most aggressive.

In another, more recent study, similar findings were observed in college students who took part in a competitive task. Participants were randomly assigned to consume either a glucose beverage or placebo drink containing a sugar substitute. Following this, participants then competed against an opponent in a reaction time task, which has been shown previously to provide a measure of aggression. Before beginning the task, the students could set the intensity of noise their partner would be blasted with if they lost. As predicted, participants who drank the glucose drink behaved less aggressively towards their partner, choosing lower noise intensities, compared with those who had consumed a sugar substitute. This suggested that hunger-related aggression, or ‘hangriness’, could be ameliorated by boosting one’s glucose levels.

One notable (though some may argue rather dark) study into the ‘hangry’ condition investigated the relationship between blood glucose and aggressiveness in married couples. As well as pitting spouses against each other in a similar reaction time task to the one described above, participants were also given a voodoo doll of their partner and told to stick pins in the doll each evening, depending on how angry they were at their partner. (Warning, do not try this at home). As with previous studies, lower levels of blood glucose resulted in participants blasting their spouses with higher noise intensities and sticking more pins in the voodoo dolls, suggesting greater levels of anger and aggression.

While these studies do not necessarily ascertain causality, the relationship between low blood glucose and the tendency to become aggressive makes biological sense, since glucose is the main energy source our brains need to control such negative impulses. As observed in studies and experienced by many of us, ‘hangry’-related crimes can also be easily avoided by supplying the potential offender with food, further supporting the role of glucose in hunger-related anger. So next time ‘hangriness’ threatens to ruin the harmony in your household, fill your mouth with food rather than foul language, and save yourself a night banished to the couch.

Post by: Megan Freeman



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